Wednesday 22 January 2014

Crime, Illness & Getting High

I've just moved on from Quito after spending my first week in Ecuador's capital city. For the duration of that period I was attending a Spanish school and living with a local family to brush up on la lingua. Apart from a few wanderings around the Centro Historico, a visit to an indigenous market and a cable-car jolly 4100m up the side of a volcano, there's not a huge amount to relate. Instead, I'm going to write about the three things that have been at the forefront of my mind this past week: Crime, Illness and Getting High (i.e. high altitude). Namely, the attempted avoidance of all three. Tennet's Travel's first set of How-To Guides, if you will. Or more accurately How-Not-To.

Quito from Above
These three challenges pop-up throughout Latin America, but they are never so prevalent and combined than in Ecuador, and particularly Quito. Sitting at 2800m above sea level with exotic-bacteria aplenty and one of the worst reputations in South America when it comes to tourist-focused crime. Quite an intimidating place to encounter at any point on a travel itinerary, but even more so when you're fresh off the sky-boat (some people call these aeroplanes) from low-altitude, friendly, easy-living Inglaterre. Doubly so if you're on your poor little lonesome.

I was lucky enough to encounter issues with only two of these obstacles during my time in Quito, but my weak foreign-body was still a mess from the thin air that high altitude creates and the stomach-testers that the local eateries serve up.

Yanapuma Spanish School
First though, a little look at the more serious and scary ingredient in the Quito cocktail: Crime. In late 2009, the Ecuadorian government released a State of Emergency warning in respect to the crime levels in major cities, particularly Quito & Guayaquil (the start and end points of my upcoming Ecuador Tour Leader job - yay!). Things have undoubtedly improved since then, with a very obvious increase in police presence around Quito Old Town. I was here two years ago and it definitely feels safer this time round. Still, the horror stories continue to circulate and there's no doubt the New Town (or 'Gringolandia' as it's referred to by the locals) can be a risky place to wander, especially after dark. So, with a focus on the solo traveller in a dodgy city, how can you make yourself safer? Here's the first guide:

Crime: How-Not-To be a Mug(ging)...
  1. Speak to locals
    Even before guidebooks are published, taking into consideration the time between research and publication, they are out of date. Therefore, regardless of what the guidebook says, as soon as you arrive in a new town chat to the locals; hotel staff, restaurants, taxi drivers. These people actually live here and will have the up-to-the-minute, on-the-ground information regarding crime and safety. 
  2. Appearance
    Try to decrease your tourist look. Shorts, sandals, luminescent t-shirts, cameras bigger than your face,
    Looking like a nutter
    guide book in one hand, giant map in the other. All of these combine to create a big tourist arrow pointing down above your head. Not necessarily a problem in some cities in the world, but in Quito I've purposefully been wearing long-trousers, shoes and generally cheap/dirty looking clothing (not a huge challenge with my wardrobe). If I need to look at a map or guide-book, I'll pop into a nearby shop rather than appear disorientated on the street. Sure, I'm still obviously a tourist, but hopefully one who looks a little more like they belong. And one who doesn't have any money.
    Walk everywhere quickly and with purpose, avoid dawdling and looking lost. It can also help to appear a bit pissed-off and a little crazy (I've found bizarre facial hair can help achieve this). If you look like a nutter you'll likely be left alone.
  3. Belongings
    Always carry the least possible 'stuff' around with you. I absolutely hate having to hump all my belongings around and the feeling of vulnerability that comes with this, so I'll only do so when absolutely necessary. When you do need to carry valuables, split them up - in your bag, on your person, the majority of money concealed somewhere (money belt, sock, inside hem of trousers) and smaller denominations in various pockets. When sitting in restaurants, on buses etc. keep one limb looped through your bag strap.
  4. Taxis
    ONLY EVER use official taxis, making a note of the registration or licence number beforehand if you can. Booking over then phone is preferable to hailing on the street and obviously never share a ride with a stranger. I always try and joke with the driver before jumping in, to get an impression of his character. Continuing a friendly chat during the journey, showing an interest in his life and culture. Developing some sort of mutual understanding and therefore hopefully reducing chances of murder and rape.
  5. Power in Numbers
    Your vulnerability is always reduced when you are in a big group. This is something I often have trouble with as I'm usually travelling alone. Whenever possible, though, tag onto a group and move around together.
  6. After Dark
    The night is not your friend. Situations and places can change greatly once darkness falls so always find out exactly what the deal is, the latest information, before venturing out en la noche. Only carry the absolute minimum with you, so if the worst happens you won't lose much. A personal pet hate of mine is arriving in an unknown city after dark, so try to schedule your travel to avoid this.
  7. Be Aware
    Finally, be aware and trust your instincts. Keep monitoring your surroundings for anyone or anything unusual and don't second guess yourself if something doesn't feel right - get outta there!
Ecuadorian Surrogate Family
The aim here isn't to be overly paranoid and spend all the time worrying. These steps obviously apply more when you are in a 'dodgy' location and if you can make them second-nature you'll be a lot safer without really having to think about it. Also, accept that you may still become an unlucky victim and the most important thing to remember is don't try to resist an aggravated robbery. Despite following all my own advice I was still mugged on the last trip in Costa Rica (see this ol' blog).

Moving onto the two ailments I've fallen victim to in this first week: La Comida y La Altitud. Both unavoidable and potentially debilitating, but certainly manageable if the right steps are taken. Let's start with intestinal issues, in this second guide:

Food: How-Not-To Say 'Uh-Oh Estomago' (catchy titles, right?)
  1. Speak to locals
    As before, the best source of up-to-date information. Where is good to eat? Locals within the tourist industry are the best option as they are also aware of weak Western stomachs.
  2. Check the customers
    If one restaurant is heaving and next door is empty, pick the busy one. There's a reason people are in there. It's also a good sign if other tourists and young children are present. As much as this goes against pleasurable dining rules, children's tummies are almost as delicate as your pathetic foreign belly.
  3. Wash your hands
    You filthy animal.
  4. Food preparation
    Look for somewhere with a high turnover of meals (again, back to the busy rule). You don't want a pre-prepared meal heated up after being sat on a counter for hours.
  5. Take it easy
    One step at a time. Try the local chicken dish first, before the deep-fried dog's colon.
  6. Watch out for the water
    You're probably more likely to get ill from el aqua than la comida. Most people know to avoid drinking from the tap, but remember there are other sources - ice in drinks, washed fruit/veg, watered-down juices, non-boiled tea/coffee, even teeth-brushing. Any one of these has the potential to make you a permanent Baño-dweller for the next little while.
  7. Accept it
    I'm often a hypocrite where the above rules are concerned - venturing into a dodgy local eatery at the beginning of a long trip, spending a couple of days attached to a toilet and then moving on with an increased level of intestinal immunity. At least that's the plan. You're going to get ill and when it's happened once it's less likely to again. So get stuck in. Take it on the chin (or bowels).
Finally, the most specialised of the three guides here. Something you'll only encounter in a minority of locations. High altitude.

I was obsessed with getting high during my previous South America trip - constantly climbing higher and higher until finally reaching the 6000+m peak of Huayna Potosi in Bolivia (you can read all about it here, if you have nothing else to do with your life). By then my body was very well acclimatised as I'd spent many months floating around and above 4000m. Quito's height of 2800m wouldn't have warranted a second thought. Which should still be the case now, two years on, right? Wrong. So very wrong.

Otavalo Market
I've had real problems with the altitude this time round. Constant headaches, disturbed sleep, tiredness, breathlessness and just generally feeling shit. This probably wasn't helped by the cocksure-manner in which I arrived, "I've been above 6000m, don't you know". On more than one occasion I found myself internally scolding my pathetic body, "You know you're better than this!", developing a deep competitiveness with my past self, "If he could do it then, why can't you do it now? I will not be beaten by past-James!". An insight into my inflated ego there. Having manliness issues with other men is perhaps understandable, but with yourself from a different time period? We may have gone through the looking glass and into a douchebag worm-hole here. Anyway, my top tips:

Altitude: How-Not-To Get so High it Knocks You Back Down
  1. Drink water
    And lots of it. The only thing I've always found to help. Dehydration plays a big role in altitude sickness, so gulp it down.
  2. Take it easy
    Don't push yourself. Give your body time to adapt.
  3. Avoid unnatural rapid ascent
    Always try to ascend gradually and manage symptoms as they occur. Flying from sea level to La Paz at 3650m is never going to end well.
  4. Ascend higher before you sleep
    Another measure that's usually effective for me. Head up high during the day and come back down to sleep. Increase both levels gradually but always sleep lower than where you spent the day's activities.
  5. Descend
    If your body really isn't acclimatising, don't ignore the symptoms (headache, lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, low energy, dizziness). You could be developing much more serious lung and brain disorders - AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). You don't want these. The only sure-fire antidote is to descend. You can always give it another go later.
There you have it! My three How-Not-To guides. A little insight into my travelling mind and the main issues I've faced this week. Quite possibly an astoundingly-boring blog but who knows, someone may find it useful one day, perhaps even interesting.

The last thing to say is no te preocupes, I've now left Quito with a more durable gut and moved onto the town of Baños at a gentle 1800m and with tourist-friendly crime stats.

Just remember: Be aware, wash your hands and ascend slowly.


View over Quito

View over Quito

Volcano Llama

Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

Quito Street Volleyball Game

Quito Street Volleyball Game

Quito Street Volleyball Game

Thursday 16 January 2014

Here we go again...

Long time, no blog.

I can only apologise to those of you who breathed a long sigh of relief when the last wordy travel epic ended. It's your own fault really coming back for another look. Like some sort of gruesome yet strangely compelling road accident. You sadistic sicko. Anyway, welcome back. Here we go again...

Circumstances are different this time round: The previous trip was one solely undertaken for selfish purposes of exploration and pleasure. Those two factors remain, but are now bolstered by the additional excuse of 'working'. I've been hired by a boutique travel agency as a freelance tour leader, ready to be called upon to lead tours all over the continent at short notice. Their tour offerings are semi-luxury, small-group and fairly expensive. As such, the clientele are generally well-monied with little desire to slum it and occupying the older age bracket. Mostly retirees and couples in their 50/60/70s. Yes, this is going to be wild like that Magaluf 'tour' you once went on. I'm glad I packed my condoms. Both of them.

In a nutshell, my job is to meet clients on their arrival at the airport and then remain by their side, organising accommodation, restaurants, excursions, border crossings, transport, drivers and guides for the duration of the trip. (The nutshell here is metaphorical, attempting to coordinate all of this from within the confines of a small snack casing would be impractical).

After two years living in London, I would most likely be planning to head off (read: run away from all responsibility) again now anyway. The new job helpfully validates this life choice. I can kid myself I'm not just wasting more time. I'm working!

To be honest, though, I'm not sure when I'm meant to grow out of this travelling lark. I keep assuming it'll happen eventually as increasing numbers of my peers settle down, select a spouse, get married, produce offspring, procure housing and grimace through a 9 to 5 in order to facilitate such a lifestyle.

The allure of the open road, the unknown of a one-way adventure to a foreign land, the frightening unpredictability and glorious freedom that comes with living out of a backpack day-by-day with no real idea of where you're going or what you'll be doing next. This all somehow still seems the superior option to me. Who knows? Maybe I'll grow out of it yet...

For now, though, I'm back where I feel I belong: nowhere in particular, no fixed abode. Home is currently Quito, Ecuador from where my first tour is due to depart on 1st Feb. Before then, I've enrolled in a language school including accommodation with a local family to brush up the Spanish skills. Arrival on day one at the school was marked with a confident, headstrong stroll into a remarkably clean screen door. "Hola. Soy James!". First impressions and all. Once I've finished this week of classes, I should have time to trace the upcoming tour route across Ecuador, familiarising myself with everything I'll be pretending to know about next month. After that, who knows!?

There's not a whole lot more to fill you in on right now. Except today at lunch my Sopa de Carne came with popcorn in it. Muy comun out here, apparently. See, this is what I'm talking about! The unpredictability and unexpected occurrences that only travelling can provide. You won't 'find yourself' staring into a Minestrone from Tesco. No! Such lofty aims can only be achieved in exotic climes with soggy popcorn floating in a meaty broth.

I'm also acutely aware of the 'positive criticism' my last tome received regarding length, so I'll be trying to keep this series of blogs shorter and more succinct, focusing on one theme or occurrence rather than a constant stream of everything in the world and on my mind on a daily basis. My personal journal can house all those filthy confessions. Still, you don't have to read if you don't want to. Haven't you heard? I'm working out here. I no longer have the time to pen weekly theses, I no longer need to rely on some impossible ideal of travel writing for a living. Honest, I've moved on.... We'll see how long that lasts: Look out for next blog's gushing 2000 word description of a volcano crater.

Until then, look after yourselves. Nos hablamos pronto x